If I Were a Rich Man

James 5:1-6

Intro:  Fiddler on the Roof -  Tevya – “No shame to be poor, no great honor either” – If I were a rich man – great big house – influence.

As James begins the final paragraphs of his letter, he has some very difficult and demanding exhortations for his brothers and sisters in the faith:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.  //

 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (James 5:1-6) 

It’s been almost five years now since the financial meltdown of 2008 exposing the ethical failings of Wall Street and the banking industry – and we’re still seeing the fallout and the consequences of what happens when greed takes over.  Mortgage foreclosures sending people into bankruptcy, double digit unemployment, retirement accounts and life savings devastated.  All the while, those same banks and brokerage firms continue to give out multi-million dollar bonuses to their executives and finance lavish get away weekend retreats at resorts – all with tax-payer bailout money.  It’s all a little bit sickening watching news coverage of how the rich grow richer, while common people lose their jobs, their retirement and their trust in justice.

But let’s be honest – we all hold the rich and wealthy in at least a little bit of awe.  And for all our talk about how we live in the richest nation on earth and how even the poorest among us are fantastically wealthy compared with 95% of the world’s population – there aren’t any among us who wouldn’t like a little bit more.  There’s always a little duplicity when we condemn the rich while secretly wishing we were like them.  It’s easy to condemn something you don’t have, while really wishing you did – but that’s not James’ m.o. here.  His challenge is a genuine call to repentance.

But Is James really writing to rich people?  While he is addressing “rich people” his audience is common Christians.  This is a sermon he means to be overheard.

Here’s the problem – these Christians are holding the rich in awe and catering to them (remember the problem back in ch. 2).

And because they cater to them and hold them in awe, it’s an indication that they also would love to be like them.  The Psalmist puts it in perspective:  Ps. 49:16-20  Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him. Though while he lived he counted himself blessed—and men praise you when you prosper—he will join the generation of his fathers, who will never see the light of life.  A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish.

We tend to have a gilded view of what wealth brings – freedom, security, leisure, privilege and happiness.  But the consistent theme of scripture is that wealth and greed are a dangerous and deceptive trap.  Ultimately, riches do not bring freedom, but slavery and condemnation.

And ironically, it’s not just the wealthy that are seduced by greed.  Even the poorest can be enslaved by greed.

Illust. – commercials for lottery and casinos – the lure of easy wealth

Wealth is almost always self-deceiving.  When we come into wealth, we think that wealth will insulate, if not immunize us from troubles.  We assume wealth naturally leads to happiness.  Greed blinds to reality and distorts perspective.  It makes us arrogant and self-reliant.  Even great and ethical men, when surrounded with great wealth are dangerously tempted by the seduction of wealth.

We think to ourselves, “It wouldn’t change me! I’d only use it for good.  I’d be the same humble person I am right now.”  But the moment we think that money doesn’t have an addictive power, the devil has found an inroad in our lives.  And it’s not just when the check gets cashed – even greed itself – the longing to be rich, the dreaming of wealth – can distort our lives.

Most of these Christians whom James is writing to, like most of us, will never be rich.  But James wants to paint a picture of the dangers of wealth that will keep his brothers and sisters in Christ rooted in reality, and keep them from giving a piece of their heart to this unhealthy desire to be like the wealthy people they hold in such awe.

And he does it with some pretty powerful and picturesque language.  He begins by describing the impermanence of this wealth:  Rotted wealth, moth-eaten clothes, corroded gold and silver

It’s the picture of a store-house of wealth that has been hoarded away.  The reason all of it is rotted, moth-eaten and corroded?  It is hidden away and never used.  It is like the money the one servant buried in the hole, afraid to lose. 

It is like the grain of the rich man sitting in the barns and silos, creating wealth, but inaccessible and unshared with the Lord or his fellow man.  In fact, instead of a fat portfolio testifying to his financial savvy, all this wealth is a testimony to his foolishness and selfishness – Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.  You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

Instead of the joy and satisfaction you would expect wealth to bring you, it brings pain and guilt and a host of other maladies.

Illustration –The term “Sudden Wealth Syndrome” was coined by Dr. Stephen Golbart and Joan Di Furia in the late 1990's to describe symptoms they saw in dot.net entrepreneurs and lottery winners coming into large wealth in their California clientele.  Here were many of the common symptoms they identified in people who came into large amounts of money:

·         Increased anxiety

·         Intrusive and inappropriate thoughts about money

·         Anxiety and depression cycles about the stock market volatility

·         Sleep disorders

·         Irritableness

·         Guilt about having money

·         Confusion about their identity

·         Strong fear of loss of control

·         Paranoid thinking about being exploited

·         Increased depression

There are significant dangers that accompany wealth – be careful what you wish for.

Vs. 4 takes it a step further –  Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.

That pursuit of wealth will often cause a person to do things that are unethical and dishonest.  This rich person that James indicts is guilty of cheating his workers out of their wages to increase his own wealth. 

You don’t have to be the dishonest CEO of a Fortune 500 to be corrupted by money.  It can be simple things like cheating on your income taxes, padding your expense account, not being honest with your customers.  Think about the way you act in your business – are you a person of integrity – do you practice rigorous ethics and honesty?

Vs. 6 maximizes the harmful behavior – You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.   There is often collateral damage – if someone gets in your way, you eliminate them. 

King Ahab wants Naboth’s vineyard – Naboth won’t sell – Jezebel has him murdered and Ahab gets what he wants – it’s not just covetousness, it’s ruthless greed.

James drives home the point that wealth has an addictive, corrupting power that makes people do unthinkable things to attain it. 

It’s vs. 5 that really crowns his condemnation – You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.  Luxury and self-indulgence – those are the rewards of having “made it.”  “If I have enough money, it’s my right to buy a car that is outrageously expensive.  If I can afford it, who are you to judge the size of my house?”  It is this kind of attitude that has permeated the American mindset.  We want bigger, better, faster – we judge value by the name on the label and the amount on the price tag – we claim entitlement to the finer things in life and benchmark our success by how many of these things we have accumulated.

And James’ assessment of all this extravagance?  You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.

I’m not sure I even want to comment on that verse – it is blunt and gruesome.  If it doesn’t paint a horrific and chilling picture in your head then you haven’t lived on a farm or seen a hog-killing.

Now don’t hear James saying it’s wrong to save and invest and provide for the future.  He’s not forbidding the ownership of possessions or demanding we live an austere life of poverty.  But he is saying that without a strong sense of identity and purpose you will begin to let wealth become your identity, your purpose, your security, your god.

Paul draws the same conclusions in 1 Tim. 6:9-10,  People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Like Jesus who said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Mt. 19:24)

Or his sobering admonition:

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

James says there are certain, inevitable dangers inherent with wealth.  What he is condemning is the person whose pride is in how much he has accumulated and how big his bank account is – who pursues wealth and whose goal is to be rich – who will do whatever to whomever in order to get what he wants.  And so James says, Weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.

Don’t read this calmly and assume, “He’s talking to somebody else.”  If what James writes makes contact with your life, you’d better take it seriously and make some immediate and radical changes.

The rest of us are overhearing this condemnation of the rich and it’s a warning to us – like Paul said, those who want to get rich fall into temptation… Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith…

It’s not wealth – it’s the desire for wealth that is even more dangerous, because of the things it will make us do, and the priorities we will have to set. 

And James wants us to avoid that.  Don’t be like that, don’t settle for that kind of life.  There is no poverty so deep as the poverty of a soul that has tried to find its fill in the wealth of this world.

There is an antidote. 

Paul writes:  Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.  (1 Tim 6:17-19)

Isaiah counsels us to satisfy our hunger for wealth in a different source:  Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.  Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.    (Isaiah 55:1-2) 

Some things are out of the reach of wealth – no amount of money can purchase them.  But these are the very things which make us rich – rich in the things of God – prepared for the wealth of heaven.

The choices you make now – the priorities you set – do they honor God?  Do you use the wealth that is yours as a stewardship from God and a blessing to others?

There is a line in the familiar song, As a Deer that says, “I want you more than gold or silver, only you can satisfy.”  I hope you find in your life that that is true.  Because all the wealth in the world, without God can’t begin to satisfy.  With God, even in poverty, we find that he is more than enough.